In its eleventh year of surging vitality,a great-looking, superbly produced version of Wicked,  the musical, has arrived in this Great Plains state, neighbor to Dorothy Gale’s Kansas. Not that Dorothy is at the center of this visit to Oz. She’s a sound effect and a shadow. You probably know that. This adventure has become a legend of our time to which audiences cherish renewed visits, as if it were the second coming of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. A dark adventure, sure. A potential Halloween ritual.

The show, derived from Gregory Maguire’s exceptionally imaginative 1995 novel, subtitled The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, has been re sub-titled The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz.  This is not to suggest that the musical’s book writer Winnie Holzman much transformed Maguire’s material. By and large, she remains faithful to the source. Also credit Maguire for dovetailing his own ideas with what L. Frank Baum wrote in 1900’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz brilliantly and quite literally brought to life in the classic 1939 film.

Whatever version of the tale appears, the whole concept has become an icon of our culture, one of continual fascination.

Maguire attempted, he claims, to have us to ponder political, social, and ethical issues and the  nature of good and evil. A great ambition. However it’s essential to remember that this stage version  is a musical, not Shakespeare nor Peer Gynt.  Stephen Schwartz’s 18 songs dominate it, encompassing at least half of the production’s two and half hours. Hence the story comes lightly, albeit excellently sketched in. Holzman also peppers it with good laugh-lines, including inside joke references to movie dialogue. Recognition and identification have often been the basis for laughs,   from stand-up routines to TV sitcoms. It works.

So what we have here covers well-known ground and, since you may already know the show, a re-visit will certainly delight you and give you what you hope for.

The performances, the special effects, the sets, the costumes, the choreography look great from beginning to end. Emma Hunton as the emerging WWotW, Elphaba, gives a solid, well-grounded interpretation, evolving from innocent, hopeful adolescence to mature, urgent strength. Goofy glamorpuss Glinda’s comedy turns always work thanks to Gina Beck’s talent. Alison Fraser gives an appealing Angela Lansbury-like polish to Madame Morrible.  And Jud Williford’s version of Doctor Dillimond makes him sadly touching and sympathetic even while having scant time in the script to do so. Credit director Joe Mantello for bringing about all of this.  

Everyone sings and dances with skill and talent. But Stephen Schwartz’s songs soon begin to sound like each other and the effect feels interminable. A few clever lyrics emerge from time to time, but the melodies, the harmonies stay predictable and unimaginative. Schwartz, responsible as well for the scores for Godspell and Pippin, among others, has again turned out stand-and-deliver, knock-em-out, down front-and-enter, vocal pyrotechnics where volume substitutes for internal depth.  This joins the ranks of such equally profitable spectacles as Schönberg, Boublil and Kretzmers Les Miserables, Lloyd Webber, Hart and Stilgoe’s The Phantom of the Opera and Frank Wildhorn product. Crowd-pleasers. The work of Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, who wrote such wonderful, memorable songs for the movie Wizard of Oz, fade into history, supplanted by a plethora of this sort of thing. 

In case the references to the characters above puzzle you, this probably means you don’t know the plot of Wicked yet. If you go to see it, then, you may not be able to catch some of the fleeting suggestions of the brilliant elements of the story. The musical is posited on presumed familiarity with both sources, Baum’s and Maguire’s. Not an unusual thing for many musicals which give a lot of time to songs, bound to sell more tickets than well-developed plots and dialogue.

Elphaba is born different from the dominant race. She has another skin color. But she has rare talent. She also has power to change some lives. She and her sister Nessarose, the eventual Wicked Witch of the East, attend Chiz University to learn how to acquire more power presumably to benefit society. They are both outsiders compared to Glinda, a vacuous campus queen studying the same disciplines. Madame Morrible is the headmistress and has deep allegiance to the Wizard’s administration. The staff includes a Goat, Dr. Dillamond, one of many animals considered equal to humans until the country becomes Nazi-like. Elphaba, meeting the seemingly innocuous, fraudulent, divide-and-conquer Wizard, becomes disillusioned with everything she sees and vows to change society for the better, including becoming an animal-liberationist.  But an alien named Dorothy descends on this territory bringing destruction. Maguire brilliantly gives us a lot to ponder.

Holzman, FYI, adds a few variations of her own, including the dark, disturbing origins of The Cowardly Lion, The Tin Man and The Scarecrow. But enough of plot. Just be aware, as a newcomer to the performance, that you have to look carefully under the glitter and gloss to see the many merits of the story.

This take on the original has a disappointing, tacky major scene near the end when Dorothy throws water on Elphaba. Of course, it is predicated on knowing the original Baum invention to which the classic movie does justice. And without CGI, BTW.  It is hastily staged with shadows behind a curtain. No need to cast an actress as Dorothy. No need to work out how and why WWotW (Elphaba) is doused with water since she can’t threaten The Scarecrow with fire, him not being not there in this version.  It looks as if Holzman and the producers ran out of imagination and funds for more smoke and mirrors and visual effects.

Omaha audiences, like audiences everywhere, no doubt will embrace this, no matter its shortcomings. Oh, speaking of Omaha, in Baum’s original story, The Wizard, aka Oscar Zoroaster Phadrig Isaac Norman Henkle Emmannuel Ambroise Diggs is from this city. And became known as OZ because he put the first letters of his first two names on his flying balloon.

Enjoy those flights of fancy which land well.

Wicked continues through May 25 at the Orpheum Theater, 409 S. 16th St. Omaha. Tues-Weds: 7:30 p.m. Thurs: 2 & 7:30 p.m. Fri: 8 p.m. Sat: 2 & 8 p.m. Sun: 1:30 & 7 p.m. Tickets: $35-$165

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